When a top U.S. commander in Iraq reported last
week that attacks by Shi'ite militias with links to Iran had risen to 73 percent
of all July attacks that had killed or wounded U.S. forces in Baghdad, he claimed
it was because of an effort by Iran to oust the United States from Iraq, referring
to "intelligence reports" of a "surge" in Iranian assistance.
But the obvious reason for the rise in Shi'ite-related U.S. casualties
ignored in U.S. media coverage of Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno's charge is
that the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr was defending itself against a rising
tempo of attacks by U.S. forces at the same time attacks by al-Qaeda forces
In his press briefing on Aug. 5, Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander
in Iraq, blamed the rise in the proportion of U.S. casualties attributable to
Shi'ite militias to Iran "surging their support to these groups based on
the September report" a reference to the much-anticipated report
by Gen. David Petraeus on the U.S.' own surge strategy.
Odierno claimed intelligence reports supported his contention of an Iranian
effort to influence public perceptions of the surge strategy. "They're
sending more money in, they're training more individuals, and they're sending
more weapons in."
He repeated the charge in an interview with Michael R. Gordon of the New
York Times published on its front page Aug. 8 under the headline, "U.S.
Says Iran-Supplied Bomb Is Killing More Troops in Iraq." In that interview,
he declared of Iran, "I think they want to influence the decision potentially
coming up in September."
What Odierno framed in terms of an Iranian policy, however, can be explained
much more simply by the fact that the U.S. military mounted more operations
on Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army during the spring and summer.
The U.S. command has not provided any statistics on the targets of its operations
in recent months, but news reports on those operations reveal a pattern of rising
U.S. attacks on Mahdi Army personnel since March 2007.
Between April 26 and June 30, the U.S. command in Baghdad announced dozens
of military operations in Baghdad the vast majority in Sadr City
solely for the purpose of capturing or killing Shi'ites belonging to what were
called "secret cells," a term used to describe Mahdi Army units alleged
to be supported by Iran.
In July the Mahdi Army resisted these raids in many cases. On July 9, for example,
U.S. troops cordoned off an area in Sadr City and began searching for members
of what the U.S. command called a "criminal militia" accused of planting
roadside bombs. According to the official military press release, the U.S. troops
were "engaged by rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire from numerous
In short, the rise in deaths of U.S. troops in Baghdad in July reflected the
increased pace of U.S. operations against the Mahdi Army and the Mahdi Army's
Odierno conceded as much in the same press conference: "Because of the
effect we've had on al-Qaeda in Iraq and the success against them and the Sunni
insurgency," he said, "we are focusing very much more on the special
groups of the Jaish al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army] here in Baghdad."
The major briefing by the U.S. command on alleged Iranian support for Iraqi
Shi'ite militias in recent weeks appears to contradict Odierno's claim that intelligence
showed increased Iranian assistance to those militias. Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner
told reporters on Aug. 2 after a "surge" in Iranian assistance
had allegedly taken place that the rate of training of militia groups in
Iran had remained stable for a long time.
The transcript of the briefing also shows that Bergner did not claim any recent
increase in financial assistance to the Mahdi Army.
Odierno's reference to "sending more weapons in" continued the practice
of the George W. Bush administration to claim that Iranian officials actually
ship weapons to Shi'ite militias in Iraq, despite the fact that no evidence of
such a role has been found after four years of trying.
Odierno told the New York Times that explosively formed penetrators
(EFPs) accounted for one-third of combat deaths suffered by "U.S.-led forces"
including Iraqi and British forces in July. But he said nothing
about the proportion of total U.S. troops killed or wounded by them.
The Bush administration continues to assert that EFPs are provided by the Iranian
government, despite numerous discoveries by U.S. forces of workshops manufacturing
such devices in Iraq.
Odierno's charges are the latest addition to an ongoing Bush administration
narrative about developments in Iraq that treats all Shi'ite activity outside
the Iraqi government as reflecting Iranian policy.
Its central theme of an Iranian policy to drive the U.S. out of Iraq by killing
U.S. troops, first introduced in January, has branched out into several sub-themes,
one of which is that Sadr has lost control over the Mahdi Army. The U.S. command
has been claiming it has broken up into "rogue units" also called
"special groups" or "secret cells." Those "rogue units"
in turn are said to have become instruments of Iranian policy.
Although the Mahdi Army operates on a highly decentralized basis, and some
units have been involved in sectarian activities that Sadr did not approve,
the U.S. military has never produced evidence that a significant number of units
are no longer loyal to Sadr.
The "rogue units" line has been used to suggest that those units
that were loyal to Sadr were cooperating with the United States and to justify
U.S. attacks on the Mahdi Army both in Baghdad and in southern Iraq.
Gen. Petraeus claimed publicly that Sadr had agreed in talks with Iraq's Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the deployment of U.S. troops to Baghdad's Sadr
City district in return for assurances that searches and raids would be conducted
in a "respectable manner."
Sadr's spokesman in parliament said, however, that the understanding had been
that Iraqi forces would conduct searches and that U.S. troops would intervene
only if they faced resistance. The spokesman said U.S. troops had violated the
At first, Sadr's troops stayed off the streets and did not resist U.S. troops.
But in March Sadr's office denounced the U.S. troop deployment in Sadr City
and called on people to take to the streets in protest. And a Shi'ite cleric
loyal to Sadr exhorted followers at Friday prayers not to cooperate with the
U.S. occupation of Sadr City.
On April 8, Sadr issued a statement urged the Iraqi army and police to stop
cooperating with the United States and told his guerrilla fighters to concentrate
on pushing U.S. forces out of the country.
Thus it requires no Iranian hand to explain the escalation of the conflict
between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military that accounts for the changing
pattern of U.S. casualties in Baghdad.
(Inter Press Service)